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The United States is behaving like a drug addict groping for another fix or an alcoholic reaching shakily for a hair of the dog. Our central bank, the Federal Reserve, keeps lowering interest rates and pumping liquidity into the financial system to fight the credit squeeze. The Fed will even take smelly mortgage-backed bonds off the banks’ hands and replace them with gilt-edged Treasury bonds. Last Friday, the Fed arranged a bailout of a gambling-crazed Wall Street house and Sunday financed a takeover of the firm, Bear Stearns, at a discount of 99 percent. The federal government, too, is advancing plans to bail out certain mortgage losers, including banks.

To accommodate such actions, the Fed has to create money out of thin air. Bingo: inflation rises. And the dollar keeps sinking to new lows. The buck has plunged more than 42 percent against key currencies since 2002.

The Fed and the federal government “are advocating and facilitating actions which will inevitably weaken the U.S. dollar for a long time to come,” says Arthur Lipper III of Del Mar, chairman of British Far East Holdings Ltd. and a veteran of Wall Street and international finance. The U.S. is letting the dollar slide “to save financial institutions which abandoned sound policy for the sake of competitive gain.” That’s a polite way of saying the bankers went bonkers and now want a bailout. Since last summer, the government and central bank have thrown more than $1 trillion at the credit crisis, which continues to get worse. When there’s a bailout, the stock market rejoices for a day or two, then falls again.

Perhaps investors are aware of a looming calamity. We are slowly losing our role as dominant international currency, and that plunge may well accelerate. What country wants to hold a currency that has lost more than 42 percent of its value? “International transactions are increasingly going to be settled in currency baskets,” says Lipper. (For example, a weighted average of currencies such as the euro, U.S. dollar, and Japanese yen could be used instead of the dollar alone.) “The world is tired of America borrowing to live the good life, and the unpopularity of the present administration and its policies increases the tendency to find alternatives to traditional reliance on the U.S. dollar as the world’s currency.”

The buck is a very special currency. Since the end of World War II, the dollar has been the center of the world’s financial system. Most international transactions take place in the dollar. Being the center of the financial universe gives us unique advantages: after selling their products, countries wind up with dollars. There is a natural tendency to invest those dollars back in the U.S. as a way to protect against currency risk. If those dollars are invested in our bonds, our interest rates may be lower than they otherwise would have been. If they go into our stocks, our citizens enjoy more paper prosperity. With the dollar as the world’s currency, our traders and financial institutions have an easier time: they can deal in their own currency rather than foreign ones. All these factors give us a big financial advantage.

Because of these many advantages we have, other countries complain of “dollar hegemony.” They argue that international trade is a game in which the U.S. cranks out dollars and the world makes things that dollars can buy. Also, their countries are forced to hold more dollar reserves than they would ordinarily, partly because of the need to defend against attacks on their currencies by global speculators, the modern equivalent of pirates.

Unfortunately for us, the dollar’s role in the world has been receding. In 2002, the U.S. dollar accounted for about 70 percent of the money used for financial transactions (and also used as reserves to fight pirates). Now that’s below 64 percent. This year, with the Fed aggressively dropping interest rates into the teeth of 4 to 5 percent inflation, the dollar will decline more swiftly in value. And its use as the international currency will no doubt also decline.

In days past, our currency was dominant because we were “economically competitive and politically stable,” says Lipper. “At the present time, we are no longer economically competitive in manufacturing, and our banking system is suspect. [Remember, it was Arab nations that bailed out Wall Street’s big firms not long ago.] The U.S. dollar will be less attractive to those having alternatives to using our currency as a safe haven.”

Our inflationary fixes are hastening the world’s move to other currencies. But there is one way we may try to keep our hegemony: through warfare. Many people, myself included, believe that one reason we attacked Iraq was that in the year 2000, Saddam Hussein decreed that Iraqi oil would be sold in euros, not dollars. We sent in troops to warn other oil-exporting nations not to do the same. Lipper doesn’t agree or disagree with that supposition: “I can accept the possible validity of a range of theories,” he hedges. In any case, it’s quite possible that oil will be denominated in something other than the dollar — perhaps a basket of currencies. “The oil-producing countries have their own self-interest, and we are presently dependent on their oil,” says Lipper.

Some folks think the only people immediately hurt by a weak dollar are those traveling or living abroad. ’Taint so. The price of oil zooms as the dollar plunges. Says Lipper, “My guess is that we are looking at over $5 and probably $6 per gallon gasoline, and only then will we, as a people, get serious about conservation and alternative energy sources.”

In the financial realm, American citizens have lost their ethical compass. For consumers, “bankruptcy is becoming destigmatized,” says Lipper. “The morality of the American credit consumer is changing, and not for the better.”

Ditto for the financial institutions. There is a scary $513 trillion of complex derivatives floating around the world. The risk “is far greater than presently recognized,” he says. In the financial industry, many of these instruments are off–balance sheet. Hence, banks and insurance companies have fewer reserves than prudent business requires. “The architects and marketers of these transactions earned enormous fees, and the executives and attorneys for the participants didn’t see reason for reflecting the liabilities on the books of the parent organizations,” says Lipper. “If it all becomes unwound, it would be nice to think that some of those who could have blown a whistle will be recognized and dealt with appropriately.”

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Comments

JF March 24, 2008 @ 9:49 p.m.

How did that Tom Paxton song go? "I'm changing my name to Chrysler, I'm heading down to Washington DC. What's good for Iacocca, will be perfectly acceptable to me. I'm changing my name to Chrysler, I'm heading for that great receiving line. When they hand the million grand out, I'll be standing with my hand out, baby, I'll get mine."

I left a few lines out, but you get the point...

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electric_fish March 20, 2008 @ 8:58 a.m.

It amazes me that our government will bail out inept companies that don't know how to do business but in the same turn will layoff teachers and neglect basic needs of the society (roads, schools etc.).

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Don Bauder March 20, 2008 @ 12:19 p.m.

Response to post #1: Exactly. It shows where the priorities are. This is one of several reasons why, adjusted for inflation, average incomes have been flat since the year 2000, while the incomes of those in the top 1 percent and 1/10th of 1 percent have zoomed. I cannot tell you why the public does not get aroused. People should be storming the Bastille. But they don't seem to care. The distribution of wealth and income is back where it was in the Robber Baron days. Back then, Populists and Progressives protested vehemently. Not now. Best, Don Bauder

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Justice4all March 24, 2008 @ 1:40 p.m.

We live in a land of entitlement and handouts. These bailouts will cost taxpayers billions, while the executives at these firms made millions while making bad risk business decisions.

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Don Bauder March 24, 2008 @ 3:05 p.m.

Response to post #3: You are absolutely right. The Federal Reserve and federal government have now thrown more than $1 trillion at the credit crisis, much of it to bail out Bear Stearns. What worried the Fed was the fact that other Wall Street firms were at risk, holding paper such as credit default swaps on which Bear Sterns could not make good. So the Fed was worried about the interconnectedness; other brokerage firms, banks, pension funds, and hedge funds would get hurt by Bear's inability to make good. Now, after it has been bailed out, Wall Street is resisting any regulation. The attitude is, "Let us gamble foolishly; when we fail, bail us out, but for heaven's sake, don't force us to discipline ourselves." The Fed is protecting Wall Street nabobs who rake in $150 million to $1 billion a year. And you will pay for that. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder March 24, 2008 @ 10:07 p.m.

Response to post #5: The Fed is bailing out Wall Street because of its fear of interconnectedness: Bear Stearns's reneging on derivatives might cause other Wall Street houses, hedge funds, pension funds, etc. to take a beating. So the Fed is shelling out hundreds of billions of YOUR money to protect people making $50 million to $100 million a year in salary -- perhaps $1 billion or above. Is anything wrong with this picture? Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder March 26, 2008 @ 7:48 a.m.

Response to post #7: You are correct. The safety net set up in the 1930s has been shredded because the Congress refused to use restraint. Securities regulation is a joke. Medicare is terribly unstable. Social Security will have problems in the long term. The fact that infrastructure is so poor throughout the nation is the fault of local, state and federal politicians. Deficits at every level are excessive. Best, don Bauder

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Anon92107 March 26, 2008 @ 4:47 a.m.

Don, the problems that enalbled this situation go far beyond just Wall Street and Main Street. Our federal, state and local legislative and judicial branches are corrupted, seemingly beyond redemption, by money and politics.

One of the worst case scenarios today are the presidential election campaigns, which involve three U.S. senators who participate in a leaderless congress with a 67% disapproval rating, so they have only proven so far that they can't lead in congress anymore than they can be expected to lead the nation.

Thus you need to add Plummeting Legislative and Judicial Institutions to Plummeting Dollar. We’ll need to consider the entire spectrum of institutional failures in America before we can even begin to deal with the dollar.

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Fred Williams April 1, 2008 @ 5:29 p.m.

Stagflation, where economic stagnation is coupled with high inflation seems to be our immediate fate.

Let's face it...we've got to pay back what we've squandered. We don't seem to manufacture much, we've lived far beyond our means, and instead of investing we've wasted our money on wars and sports stadiums, the specialties of George W. Bush.

Meanwhile, our educational institutions continue to fail, while we teach our children to pray and complain rather than work hard and save. Our best students come from overseas, as do our most clever technologists.

When our system provided a free and level playing field under the rule of law, we could still attract the best from elsewhere. But, as Don has documented, we've skewed the system so much in favor of the plutocrats that only a fool would invest here now. Look at John Moores and his unpunished Peregrine fraud, half-billion dollar handout from the city, and now his grab for our airport and Balboa Park. Steve Peace, Jack McGrory, Ron Roberts, Scott Peters and other political prostitutes have all sold themselves to this crook, but no one seems to notice.

We've got a long way yet to drop in our housing prices, and wages cannot rise to meet inflation with the wage depressing effects of outsourcing. This means the vast majority will see rapid declines in their quality of life. Food, housing, and transport costs will continue to rise dramatically. Only the hyper-wealthy will be able to escape this spiral.

Honestly, I fear the worst. Social instability combined with frustration at the way we've all been screwed may lead to social violence on an unprecedented scale. This is why the very rich are retreating into private fortifications like Rancho Santa Fe and investing in Blackwater type private guards.

Is it too late? I hope not, and will work all I can this election year to get better people into positions of public responsibility. I'm afraid this may be our last chance.

Best,

Fred Williams

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midasking April 1, 2008 @ 10:11 p.m.

Where was everyone years ago when this problem was developing? What did you think the outcome was going to be with banks giving anyone with a heart beat any amount they wanted to borrow. Did anyone write a story then? I remember a lot of cheerleading for the real estate boom. Now everyone complains that oil goes up in price! That is rediculous. This really has nothing to do with a certain particular politician and Bernanke did not cause this either. How come Sir Alan Greenspan hasn't been mentioned in this discussion? Maybe we shouldn't look to these folks for answers. Just a thought but I also remember a tech boom that brought in a new economy. How could anyone still give them any credibility? They are not problem solvers but problem creators. Without a gold backed currency debts can be expanded to the limitless fantasies of politicians and bankers.... This is the problem! Has anyone noticed the gold price and how oil is relatively flat when priced in gold? Why would anyone not believe in a centralized planned economy, but believe in a centralized planned monetary system? This whole situation is nuts and to see people pointing fingers after the fact is crazy. Yes prices have to rise because we have flooded the world with dollars. Again, what did you think was going to be the outcome? To now act suprised is pathetic. This whole situation was easily predictable. So quit crying about it.

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Don Bauder April 2, 2008 @ 8:30 a.m.

Response to post #9: Yours is a most perceptive post. Yes, we have to pay back what we have squandered. Today (Wed.) people are crowing what a wonderful job the Federal Reserve has done bailing out Bear Stearns, taking doggy mortgage-backed paper in return for Treasury paper, etc. Nobody is thinking about the cost of this. Where will the money come from? Similarly, if the government bails out individuals facing foreclosure, where will the money come from? Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been told to buy more mortgages. In the long run, who pays? You are correct: the system is now run for the superrich. Tax, monetary and economic policies are all aimed at increasing their wealth at the expense of average Americans. The courts and justice systems are tilted in the same direction. Even Alan Greenspan says that income and wealth inequality may lead to violence. And he helped create it. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder April 2, 2008 @ 8:37 a.m.

Response to post #10: This is also a perceptive post. When bubbles are expanding, very few voices of sanity are heard. In the 1990s, I was writing in the U-T that prices of tech stocks were insane. These prices were based on assumptions about future growth that were not realistic. Several people in the San Diego tech industry complained to the U-T. How could it permit such a reactionary to write such things? In the real estate boom, few people pointed out that the extension of mortgages was out of hand. Many knew prices were wacko, but few complained that people were getting mortgages they couldn't afford. I remember writing in 2004 that a lot of these mortgages were crazy, but I admit I should have been writing about it earlier. Best, Don Bauder

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